Spring testing has arrived for area students, and a lot is riding on how well they perform — particularly for educators in Hayward and San Lorenzo.

The two are "program improvement" districts, meaning their students as a whole have failed to meet federal and state testing requirements that continue to rise. If the trend continues, the districts could face severe sanctions.

"The stakes are getting higher," said Katarin Jurich, director of assessment for San Lorenzo schools. "And the floor underneath us is cracking."

San Lorenzo Unified is one of three East Bay districts that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is keeping tabs on under a reform plan he announced earlier this year. The district, along with Oakland and Berkeley schools, has failed to meet all goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for five years in a row.

Statewide, 97 districts are in the same boat.

Last year, San Lorenzo students met all but one of the 42 testing requirements set forth by NCLB. Special-education students as a whole failed to meet federal benchmarks in standardized testing, which kept the district from being in the clear of any sanctions.Meanwhile, if Hayward Unified fails yet again to meet test-score benchmarks, it will move into year three of program improvement, meaning it could face even more penalties from the state.

Sanctions the state may impose on districts include hiring state-approved consultants to help raise test scores.

Breaking out of program improvement isn't easy — districts must meet all testing benchmarks for two consecutive years.

While educators agree accountability is important, some argue against using one test to see if students are learning state standards.

"It is just a snapshot, as there are 180 days in a school year and only a 21-day testing window," said Debbie Bradshaw, Hayward Unified's director of assessment. "It is just one measure and not necessarily fair, but it's the rule."

With heavy pressure to raise test scores and meet growing expectations, perhaps the toughest challenge for educators is getting the message across to students.

Officials from both districts have sent mailers to households highlighting the importance of the upcoming standardized testing season. HUSD Superintendent Dale Vigil also discussed the topic during a parent forum last week. And several schools have held assemblies to try and get students excited about testing, Bradshaw said.

Performing well on the tests does have its incentives for high school juniors, according to Bradshaw, as good scores would allow students to bypass entrance exams for universities in the California State University system.

Teachers, particularly at the elementary school level, have also taken time to familiarize students with the test layouts.

One school that has proved successful is Grant Elementary in San Lorenzo.

Principal Bob Kaminski said the campus has met all testing requirements each year since NCLB was signed into law in 2002.

About three weeks before testing begins, teachers spend about 15 minutes a day discussing test-taking strategies.

One such strategy is helping kids differentiate the genre of the text presented to them during a test.

"You wouldn't read a test the same way you would read a fiction book," said Vanessa Bramlett, a reading specialist at Grant Elementary.

Some parents, however, said pressures to perform well in standardized testing is ruining classrooms.

"Teachers are so worried about the tests that they're not really able to teach the kids," said Robert Stranahan, a parent at Lorenzo Manor Elementary in San Lorenzo. "Kids in their developmental years shouldn't have to worry about tests. Let them grow and get used to going to school first. It's just sad."

Some educators also argue that NCLB's goal of getting all students up to proficient levels by 2013 sets schools and districts up for failure.

"No one student is the same, and they each learn and grow at different levels," Jurich said. "I guess if we fail again we'll go to purgatory. And there'll be plenty of company with us."

Kristofer Noceda can be reached at 510-293-2479 or knoceda@bayareanewsgroup.com.